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Seize the Day: Rewatching Dead Poets Society
"Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."
That's the ethos that Robin Williams' character, Professor John Keating, tries to instill on his students in Peter Weir's 1989 film, Dead Poets Society. The feeling that life is short, and that we should make the best of every opportunity we can. After several years, I gave this wonderful film a rewatch recently, and it was as great as I remembered it to be.
Set in the super-conservative Welton Academy for Boys during the late 50s, the film follows a group of students, who are inspired by Keating's teachings. Keating, who is a former student of Welton, arrives as the new English professor, and his impassionate lectures serve as a catalyst for some of the boys, who decide to follow Keating's footsteps and revive the titular "clandestine" group. The Dead Poets Society meet in a nearby cave to drink and smoke, but most importantly, to share poetry.
Aside of that, each of the boys is inspired and encouraged individually in different ways by Keating. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) gets the courage to "woo" a girl he has fallen in love with, even though she has a boyfriend. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) becomes more free-spirited and liberal, albeit not necessarily thinking of the consequences. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is encouraged to follow his dreams of acting and audition for a play, defying his father orders. And finally, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is the most introverted of the group, is inspired to come out of his shell and explore his talent for poetry.
Despite the prominence of the characters of Keating and Neil, it is Todd in which the film focuses more. It is his character arc the one that the film follows through, from his arrival to Welton and him meeting his future friends, through his struggles in class, with his friends, and in writing, and finally how he reacts to the climatic events of the film. Hawke, who was 18 at the time, shows early in his career why he went on to become a star. He plays the shy, introverted Todd perfectly, and his transformation is completely believable. The actors that play the rest of the boys are pretty good too, most notably Sean Leonard as the conflicted Neil, and Hansen as the controversial Charlie (or "Nwanda").
But the showiest role belongs easily to Robin Williams. Not because he overacts it; quite the contrary, his performance as Keating is very subtle, at least by Williams' own standards. But he owns the best lines, and he delivers them with such an endearing confidence that makes you want to be in that classroom for a whole semester. Despite having a spotty reputation because of some film choices, Williams has proved his talent repeatedly, from his comedic and improvisational skills (Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin) to his more dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo). His performance as Keating is, like in Good Morning Vietnam, a comfortable middle ground between drama and light comedy. His performance is not over-the-top showy, but still makes you chuckle. His emotions aren't forced, but subtle. His Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved.
Dead Poets Society
June 2, 1989
Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard
The film is directed by Peter Weir, who would go on to direct The Truman Show, which presents similar themes. Both films present characters that are encouraged to break away from their "pre-programmed" paths to make their own destiny. The characters in both films are afraid to explore life away from what they already know or what its expected of them, but are inspired to walk away from that road and find their happiness in their own terms.
I hadn't seen this film in more than a decade, so I'm glad to say it was as good as I remembered it. Great performances from everyone involved, and a solid, inspiring script. I know some people dismiss it as manipulative, but as a teacher myself, I can only hope to have an iota of the impact that Keating has in the film on my own students. Grade: A
With the passing of Robin Williams today, the words of Mr. Keating resonate more than ever. "Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary". Williams, a man that arguably lived an extraordinary life, yet spent most of it haunted by his inner demons. Still, no one can deny the impact his life had, whether it is in the people around him, the actors that shared the screen with him, or the industry overall. His "verse" is written in the lives he touched, in the tears he drew out, and the laughs he caused. Now, what will *your* verse be?
Dead Poets Society Official Trailer
More films about fate
- The Truman Show: Fate or Free will?
This 1998 gem from director Peter Weir presents us some thought-provoking questions about our lives, as well as a Jim Carrey like we hadn't seen before.
- Bridge to Terabithia: Eyes closed, mind wide open
This book adaptation is a magical film that manages to keep its feet on the ground with great performances and a moving script.
- Road to Perdition: No turn around?
Director Sam Mendes' second film presents the inner struggle of a killer torn between revenge and redemption.